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Archive for the ‘Acceptance’ Category

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I read a gorgeous article on Art Blart recently about the photography of Walker Evans. In it, he cites an article by Thomas Sleigh about Tomas Tranströmer, Too Much of the Air (see links below).

In it, Sleigh writes:

My first glimpse of Tomas Tranströmer was many years ago in Provincetown, Massachusetts as he ducked his head under the metal lip of a twelve-seater plane’s exit door, then stepped hesitantly down the stairs to firm ground. He seemed a little shaken, his long face blanched, his features reminding me, when I think of it now, of the circus horse in a late Bonnard painting: gentle, wary, potentially sad. “I don’t mind large planes or middle-sized planes (his English was slightly gutteral, his intonations lilting in a mild brogue), but small planes—you feel too much of the air under you.” That remark, direct, plainspoken, but also flirting with the metaphysical, has seemed over the years a keyhole into his work: a void; a sense of hovering above that void; the nerves registering each tremor with precision; the mind fighting back the body’s accelerating fear.

Thomas Sleigh’s article:

https://www.poets.org/m/dsp_poem.php?prmMID=19009 

Art Blart:

http://artblart.com/2014/02/20/exhibition-walker-evans-american-photographs-at-the-museum-of-modern-art-moma-new-york/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ArtBlart+Art+Blart

The void always there, hovering—our bodies.

And how, my whole life, I’ve been afraid of things being taken away. This is a pretty natural fear, primal, human, animal—everyone has a survival instinct for both themselves and whom they love. What made the difference in my life was that people told me this would happen. That I would lose everything and everyone. The way this was presented to me was that this was a fact. I was very young when people started telling me this. And as I write this, it sounds like the beginning of a good detective novel or a psychological thriller, exciting, terrifying in the way of terror when you’re lying cozy in your bed, reading or watching TV. But when people you trust tell you that what is happening on the screen will happen to you if you don’t do certain things, that you are patently unsafe because of who you are, who you were born, that instills a habitual terror that never quite leaves you. Or that you spend a lifetime confronting and healing, over and over again.

The body reveals what the conscious mind doesn’t.

My nerves fighting with the air: delicate underbelly, sky’s reaching. I was never certain what was air or ground. These are terrors, fully embodied, but unspoken for many years. And it is raining outside now.

Of course, it is not raining inside.

Get it down on paper. This refuses the chugging blood pressure as the plane soars upward.

The red brick of the brownstones. Rain comes down on snowed-in cars.

When days change you, you give them space, give yourself time and space around that day. I spent the next two days after lying in bed, watching TV and resting. The first day, I wash the dishes. On the second day, I take out the trash, clean out the fridge.

Some days change you. I bought a battery-powered radio with my uncle on Tuesday. I put it on the tray I have on the heater on the side of my bed near the windows. The seated painted-black Buddha is in front of it, along with a red velvet box containing condoms, earbuds for the Roku, and Chapstick, a tarot deck, four remotes, a coaster.

It has been a week of seeing behind the veil of things— one veil, plural things. Got my blood drawn for annual tests on Monday, went through old papers and calendars and maps belonging to my great uncle on Tuesday. Maps of Africa and Poland and Europe and Maine and Peak’s Island, where his son now lives, a lobsterman, and where he and two wives used to summer. We found Xeroxed, stapled papers with a typed family tree, done simply in Times typeface with lines and arrows, and going for maybe five pages, each generation going further into the present as we turned the pages. Along with this very basic family tree were some marriage records from Bialystok, Poland, and three handwritten pages in Polish, in beautiful script. Inscrutable because neither of us know Polish. Lists of things to do, to buy in his late wife’s handwriting, business cards, typewritten lists of her paintings, with name and price, letters from her gallery about sales, the letter from the gallery of two paintings sold at her last show, put on after she died. Letters from about twenty organizations, human rights, animal rights, environmental, asking for money.

The deep, good heart of my great uncle, the way he cares about the world, really made an impression on me. I’ll never forget it. I see my father in him, see where in the bloodline this connection to the world comes from, this faith that ties us all together within the same fate, animals, humans, continents, lands. This knowing I grew up with and never doubted that we are all one and, that if one suffers, all do. This has been in me since before I could articulate it. The week of lost things. Lost things returning. Things we don’t even know are lost. He warmed up coffee from the morning, left on the coffee maker, and turned the machine on to heat it up. It was very good, actually. Tasted strong. What a strange, strange world we live in and our lives, too, are weird because they’re so intense and overwhelming, we fade in and out of them, hallucinate, remember and experience at the same time—memory and history and the present all at the same time—my legs ached after a while, standing at the table we were clearing for hours. At some point, my uncle sat down, exhausted by the standing as much as the weight of history.

We had a beautiful conversation that lasted all day. We talked about insomnia and waking up in the early morning—he said he listens to the radio, BBC News, news from around the world, and it makes him feel connected, even though a lot of the news is sad and sometimes awful, it makes him feel like he’s not giving up on the world. I will remember this for the rest of my life.

As we do, we change. It is inevitable. It is this inevitability that moves us forward towards grasp and branch. The dusk of forefathers and foremothers. Where does it say that the window’s light is not the breath of land? We are the open of the land. We creature permanency. There is no permanent redaction of the past. It holds us, trembling, in its little-bird branches. We are sewn into it. Sunlight picks through the underbranches creating force and catapulting loss into new fields. These fields of light destroy. Packed-in dirt from centuries of war and blood cold now, Addresses of the Wild Permanency, home now. We are not dead. We have lived with the dead for too long now. We let them go into a place we can’t follow. We look after them, as they blend into the surroundings, becoming less and less physical, to abandon all light by becoming part of the light. These creature-fields.

We are torn apart by light. We are torn apart by war.

We taper like candles.

Things have been really intense lately. Coming boom boom boom. Like firecrackers, leaving me deaf and blind for moments after the blasts, seeing rings and stars. Quavering and indulging in solitude. Processing or, more accurately, letting be what life is. Minutes pass gently, in relative silence. The rain helps. Opened all the windows and let in the fresh, clear air. Spring is coming!

Life is changing shape again. Shapeshifting. It does this. And every time, I’m sad, I resist, I feel such a deep sense of loss that I think I’ll fall into it. It’s hard, these changes. A lot is lost. Illusions, relationships, ways of seeing myself and the world. Right now, I’m at the beginning, or maybe the middle, of acceptance. I’m aware and I accept that certain things will never be the same.

Maybe this pain leads me again to where I need to go. Maybe with this mouth—with this dream—expressed without malady.

I’ve lost so much. Sometimes it seems everything is loss. The sky protrudes with it, the belly bloats with it, the speaking crows rebel into flock-dragons in a separating sky—where all separates into light and dark and the divine opens into itself, the huge mouth of destiny. I build and build and long periods of tearing down. I try to build things steady and strong, with brick-and-mortar foundations—all of this is impermanent and breaks my heart over and over again. Flocks of seabirds, city birds. The kiss is fleeting. Lips touch and fade. Bodies come together and break apart. This is what happens. A simple fact. All of this is certain. There will always be loss. But of the times in between that loss, the brightness is almost blinding. Loss and brightness make a whole—sweet as an egg—nest—

Poem or prose, it comes out the same. I’ve realized this, after months of writing against my natural grain—or what I thought was against—in sentences, that sequester lines—the problem is not form, but truth—where truth holds banister and crows—but the windows hold strong, the glass is steady in them, when it rattles, the wind always coming—I still have a house—language.

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Stacey Harwood shares some Hump Day Highlights at The Best American Poetry blog and links to these amazing essays!

http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2014/02/hump-day-highlights.html

5

 

 

Then, the last week of May, I got an email: “Benedict Wisniewski wants to be friends on Facebook.”  Not the Benedict Wisniewski, I thought, the boy who presented me with a red plastic ring with a white knight on it in first grade and said, “Now we’re just minutes away from marriage”?  Not the Benedict Wisniewski who gave me Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” album as we stood with our moms on the steps of St. John of God Church after our last graduation practice on a blue-green early summer evening, and said, “I got it at the best record store in all Chicago — Yardbird Records.  They have the best selection of bootlegs in the area.  And,” he whispered conspiratorially, “they also have head supplies!”

I didn’t know what “bootlegs” or “head supplies” were then, in 1974, but Benedict, a misfit like myself, the butt of classmates’ taunts (he for being fat, me for being skinny, both of us for being “different”), really knew music.   We both loved rock and roll with the passion of outcasts whose loneliness had been redeemed by it.  I needed to find that store.  But I’d forgotten where Ben had said it was, if he had said.  But three years later I finally found it, as my dad drove Georgie and I back from driver’s ed, and from then on I hung out there every weekend.  Then during the week.  Then I dated one of the owners: Arnie, eleven years older than me.  My mother constantly threatened a restraining order, but she needn’t have worried.   We never really dated until I was about to turn eighteen.  Our first “official” date, in fact, was May 6, 1978, a few months before I turned eighteen.  When he picked me up on the corner of 51st and Ashland (I told my mother I was going over by Georgie’s house) the digital clock in his Datsun B210 read 12:34 — our first date had commenced on 12:34, 5/6, ’78.  It would prove auspicious, too, as Arnie introduced me to the tiny but dedicated Chicago punk rock scene, centered on the north side.  He was my ticket out of the south side.  He died in 1979, at 29.  It was because of him that I learned that it was the north side, and then New York City, upon which I should set my sights if I wanted to pursue artistic goals (writer? painter? actress?).  But it was Ben who had pointed me in that direction in the first place.  And now, all these years later, I could thank him.  I wondered what this had to do with my mental state, if anything.  Deep down I knew it was probably everything.

By email we described what our lives had become:  Ben was chief operations officer at a big stock trading firm located in Chicago’s Board of Trade building, with a corner office and a staff.  In other words, he’d made it.  I was embarrassed telling him about my life — I was making less than half of half what he was making.  He’d also opted to stay at home and take care of his mother, and I felt guilty — now — about leaving my parents to go live in New York.  Wanting to connect with this living, breathing link to a past I was so desperately trying to bring back (or at least understand), I asked him if he wanted to talk on the phone.  We started talking regularly on Thursday nights, and our first conversation was about our revenge-through-success fantasies.

“My bête-noir in those days,” he said, “was that guy Johnny Grundy — remember him?  With the rotten teeth and greaser hair?  Greaser hair . . . in the Seventies!  He made fun of me every single day, tried to trip me in the hall, ripped papers out of my folders, put my books in other kid’s desks, put gum on my chair . . . he thought he was cool ’cause he was in a gang, you know?   And so, dig this: it’s years later, I’d just gotten out of college, I’d lost a ton of weight, I was working for the city so I had a damn good paycheck, and I had a date with some girl.  I was all dressed up — designer sport coat and tie, dress pants, the works — and I had my Mustang then, this little candy-apple red Mustang coupe.  Totally hot car.  Guys used to pull over at red lights and ask me about it.  And so I took it to this car wash at 60th and Western, and I pulled in and got out — this was back in the days when they drove it through the cash wash for you — and I’m standing behind the glass, watching the guys work on it, and I’m looking at this one guy and thinkin’, ‘Man, he looks familiar …’ and dammit if it wasn’t that fucking low-life Johnny Grundy!  And when they were done I went over to the car, and he kept looking at me, and I kept looking at him, and I knew he knew who I was, and he was looking at the car I was driving, and looking at how I was dressed — and he was in this raggedy old t-shirt and jeans — and I didn’t say a damn thing to him.  I just drove out of there with a big smile on my face thinking, ‘This is what happens in the real world, you son of a bitch.’  ‘Cause I was the fat boy that nobody wanted around.”

“And I was the skinny girl that nobody wanted around.”

“And now I’m sitting in my office with a view of the lake, behind a $2,000 hand-carved executive desk, with my butt firmly planted in a $500 leather chair, thinking those kids that made fun of me — where are they now?   Wiping down cars, making shit money.  And look at you: traveling around the world, reading your work in foreign countries, getting published, doing what you love … that’s what ya call payback, baby!  Don’t it feel good?”

It didn’t.  Because I wasn’t successful — I’d just forfeited a Fulbright.  I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown, and I was going to have to start my 3-week adjunct summer teaching gig in a week.  I was a mess.  Plus I still hadn’t gotten my revenge-through-success on the clique of girls who’d tormented me.  And now I was in the grip of something that was taking my last chance at even moderate success as a writer away.  I was still a loser.

During one of our conversations, Ben told me about a Facebook page created by two former St. John of God Grammar School alums.  But he said to beware — everyone was discussing the demolition of the church, which had just begun.  I’d been following the final days and closure of the church for years; my mother had sent me newspaper clippings describing the parish’s struggle to keep going despite its dwindling — and then barely existing — congregation, its famous crying Virgin Mary statue, and its final Mass in 1992.   I’d wished I’d been there for that final Mass, to see the priest and altar boys leave the altar for the last time, to have one last look at those four pious kneeling angels, the painting in the dome that had inspired such peace in my soul, and the shafts of colored light pouring in through the stained glass windows at the beginning of three months of summer.  I’d even had a crazy dream of writing a coming-of-age novel so powerful it would revive interest in our historic neighborhood (the first American grass-roots community organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, had been founded there, by activist Saul Alinsky in 1939) and the archdiocese would re-open the church because of overwhelming demand from the influx of new parishioners.  I’d make the local and national news, Oprah would choose my novel for her book club, there’d be an interview with me in front of my old house.  Artists and urban pioneers would flood into the neighborhood because of the cheap rents, yuppies would follow, and newspaper articles would be describe the “new diversity,” never-before-seen on the “white flight” south side of Chicago.  I actually did write the novel — Greetings From Jag-off Land —  but the handful of agents I’d sent it to turned it down, so I shelved it and went back to writing poetry.  About joining the SJG Facebook page, I was uncertain: I didn’t know if I wanted to embellish my despair over the demolition of my life with despair over the demolition of the church.  The idea of that beautiful church with its graceful, lace-like twin spires, its high and airy vault — my childhood sanctuary — being torn apart was just too much to bear.  But curiosity got the best of me, and I joined the “St. John of God Parish and Grammar School” page.

The names of almost-forgotten, now vividly-recalled kids from various grades scrolled before me: Kubicki, Wroblewski, Dombrowski, McGuire, Glow, Walczak, Shedor, Faro.  I could see them, and many others, making their idiosyncratic ways up and down the aisles during Communion at 8 a.m. Mass: the girl who developed early and knew it, and rolled her skirt and left the first three buttons of her blouse open, the one the boys called “Bouncy”; the boy whose mother had died and whose shoes had soles that were half off, and so he dragged his feet, making a shushing sound; the tough gang girl who liked to fight, and shot dirty looks from under her blunt-cut black bangs at other girls in the pews.  The names I didn’t recognize were girls who’d gotten married, I figured, so I clicked on the links to their pages and it became clear who’d they been back then.  Two of my teachers were also there, including Mr. Urbanek, my seventh grade English teacher, my favorite, who’d first encouraged me to be a writer.   The names brought on an internalized feeling of the shape and space of the school: light brick, modern, L-shaped, two floors, long windows, two sets of red double doors along the front, and a white cement Lady of Fatima statue, with three kneeling children and a couple of sheep, on the grass behind an iron stake fence.  Inside, the shiny marble floors of Kindergartens A and B (upon which I’d napped next to Ben on a rag rug) inlaid with the alphabet, numbers, friendly animals, a clock that looked like a sun.  In all the classrooms were high, wide windows that had to be opened with a long pole, and low bookcases containing red Thorndike-Barnhardt Scholastic Dictionaries.  In front of Sister Principal’s office (where I went with Billy Peak in Kindergarten because we fought over who had colored their Thanksgiving turkey drawing more prettier) sat a big, plush German Shepherd, placed there by my classmate Melanie Rybczinski, whose mother was the principal’s secretary.  I could smell the mimeographed paper we used for cursive writing practice in the lower grades, and feel the curvy orange Palmer Penmanship Pen we used later (and also my continual irritation at not being able to make those wheat stacks look the way they were supposed to).

But also there, as I feared, were photos of the church in the process of being taken down.  At first, I couldn’t look at them, but, again, curiosity got the best of me, and there was the mural of Jesus with the children, now with nothing but clear blue sky behind it and raw plaster all around it.   The vestibule was in ruins, and rubble littered the winding staircase that led to the choir loft.  A linked youtube video, called “Goodbye, St. John of God Church,” made by the daughter of a woman who’d graduated the year before me (and whose brother had been in my class), lovingly lingered on the details of whatever remained amidst the rubble and the mold-damaged, peeling walls.  The murals of peaceful, pious, kneeling angels flanking the altar were chipped and fading behind dust and mold, though they still continued to display, to the best of their ability, and for whatever eternity remained to them, the censer, St. Veronica’s veil, the chalice and Host, and the Crown of Thorns.  (Now, I could finally see their faces and tender expressions up close — it made their imminent destruction even more tragic.)  The pews had been removed and an inflatable basketball hoop and backboard put in, and garish blue and yellow protective plastic padding covered the Stations of the Cross paintings.   A cheap digital scoreboard had been added to the wall below the choir loft — the church had been repurposed as a gym for the community center that was our old grammar school — and a sign affixed to the outside of the church read “William J. Yaeger Memorial Gym.”  The lofty white marble and gold main altar had basketball-shaped puncture holes at the bottom, and the alcove where the statue of St. John of God once stood, holding a pomegranate surmounted by a cross in his hand and looking down tenderly, bemusedly, was empty.  Remaining atop the main altar were the two white marble figures, seated, looking down protectively; they now looked down on rubble-strewn floors, and an inexplicable car tire.  The dome painting that I’d loved so much, of St. John of God ministering to the sick man, assisted by an angel holding a vessel of healing liquid and the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus seated on clouds, remained poignantly intact.  Outside, the two slender bell towers, stripped of their exterior bricks, looked like stockyards’ smokestacks.  At the end of the video was a quote: “‘What the heart has once known, it will never forget’ — Author Unknown.”

There were discussions about the church that echoed my own feelings:

— Has anyone gone back to “our” church to see how it looks? I don’t think that I can, I’m afraid my heart would break in a millon peices

— I was looking at the pictures on the site…is that a scoreboard where the choir used to be?? Wasn’t the church blessed at one point?  How can there be basketball games going on in a sacred place?!!!

— All our indestructible memories, amid the ruins . . .

— OH MY GOD!!!!!!! It’s a gym????????????????????? That is horrible!! I can’t believe someone allowed all of this to happen.

— I went past there about two months ago, showed the kids where I grew up and the size of the school compared to where they go. The church is still standing but it just looked deserted. When did they tear down the “old” school? Remember doing the plays there or using it for a lunch room?

— God bless our home.

But there was actually hope.  Reading more recent postings, I learned that St. John of God wasn’t exactly being wantonly demolished.  The beautiful Renaissance Revival facade and some of its exterior were being transported, brick-by-brick, to Old Mill Creek, Illinois, a town on the Wisconsin border, to become part of a new church, St. Raphael the Archangel.  The interior of the new church would come from another closed Chicago church.  This was something that had never been done before, apparently; the Archdiocese of Chicago had an epiphany: a recycling apotheosis.  In a photo of the new church going up, I could see the beginning of the familiar collonade that would shelter the massive front doors.  In a video, the foundation-laying ceremony included putting St. Raphael’s corner store on top of St. John of God’s.  I recognized that cornerstone — the date, in Roman numerals, had been chiseled incorrectly originally, and some smart-ass had written the proper way in underneath, in chalk.  The chalked date had been erased, and now it would apparently remain awkwardly calculated forever — I liked that.  My former fellow schoolmates were just as encouraged:

— Whew!  My childhood memories are just . . . . moving.

— Heard about this move. Sounds like a great idea and a way to continue the beauty of this church in a beautiful church.

— If by moving it it will continue to be of use, I say bravo, Archdiocese of Chicago.

— My sister already contacted the pastor at the new church and the old St John members are invited to attend the “opening ceremonies”. Thought it would be a great way for the old St John family to symbolically hand over the building to the new congregation. Any thoughts out there??

— That sounds like a great idea to attend the opening ceremonies. I would love that. Anyone else?

— Absolutely! I went past the new location recently and took these photos of the limestone bricks of “our” church waiting to be pieced together . . . Although these are waiting to be reconstructed, somehow just being among them, made me feel at home! 🙂

The shape and color of those piles of bricks brought back the palpable and familiar presence of the church.  I could feel myself, so vividly it surprised me, walking up the wide steps, standing at the entrance to the church, under the collonade, with a glance cast to the side, to the trees that surrounded the church, just about to grasp the door handle and enter the vestibule on a mild spring morning.  In the background of the photo the unmown Midwest prairie grasses and tall trees of its new home on the Wisconsin border recalled Sherman Park.  It occurred to me that the church had been moved to the kind of bucolic location that Sherman Park was designed to suggest — it had been moved to a beautiful, peaceful place, away from the violence that had been done to it.  It would never be the same without its original interior (which had been ripped wantonly away — why couldn’t those beautiful murals be saved?), but it had been moved so that it could serve a new purpose for a new community.  Had I wanted it to remain where it had been, serving no purpose except to be a useless symbol of a long-ago time?  There was something to be learned from what was happening to St. John of God: at 50, what was my purpose?  Was I just clinging to a long-ago time that could never serve a real purpose?  And hadn’t I been de-constructed recently, hadn’t my insides been ripped away?

I knew there was something to be learned from that, and that all this was in my life for a reason, but could I emotionally deal with it?  If I started posting on that page, and people responded, what other wounds would be reopened?

 

Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.

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Dark, Terrifying Places, and What I Learned from Leonora Carrington, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker and Emily Dickinson

 

To know that human beings can do evil to each other almost breaks my faith over and over again. The almost is pivotal. Part of faith is doubt and to face this is important. The paradox of beauty and terror is something I wrestle with on a regular basis. This seeming impossibility of two powerful forces calls into question all of my beliefs about humankind. To accept that there are people who can do such horror is beyond comprehension, but also, I am drawn to trying to understand.

 

For me, it was learning about the Holocaust that triggered the all-too-human terror that exists in all of us. The specific trigger is important up to a point. What matters and what lights our way along this very dark path of navigating fear is that we all feel this, we all struggle with mindless horror, and our stories all contain a memory, a trauma, an experience that stays with us throughout our lives and makes us confront our startling vulnerability and mortality. How we move through this fear, this grief, this anger, this desire for things to be different than they are defines us—we develop survival mechanisms, avoidance techniques, addictions, and also courage, strength and a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of the human race on this earth at this time.

 

Just before beginning my adolescence, I found out about the Holocaust. Not only did I find out about this horrific history, it was told to me in a barbaric and traumatic way that would haunt me for the better part of my adolescence and twenties. I was away from home for the first time, at summer camp. That same summer, my best friend decided to be best friends with another girl in our grade and left me alone, lonely and alienated, during this time when I desperately needed comfort and love. The fear and despair this all instilled in me was potent, a deep trauma that I have spent a lifetime healing. There was something of that fear that became a fear of being who I am inside, deeply, as a human being, as a living creature. This was my first intimacy with suffering.

 

For most of my pre-adolescence and into my teenage years and my twenties, I was obsessed with tragedy. I read countless books about the Weimar Republic and World War II, looked at photographs that Lee Miller took after the war, read about families that saved other families, tried to understand how this genocide of so many could happen. This dovetailed with my fascination with and adoration of tragic heroines, those women who suffered at the hand of fate and created art that was so beautiful, it set the world on fire. The fire was bright and its sparks cascaded down to earth in a silent parade of the invisible, of those who were erased, who disappeared and then reemerged in a torrent of color and dream, pain transformed into beauty.

 

Leonora Carrington’s paintings and life encapsulated all of this, her and Max Ernst’s tragic love and the deepest suffering that she bore and couldn’t bear anymore and went mad and then lived a long, long, long life after tragedy and the war, during which she continued to make sculptures and paint and set the world on fire with her beautiful creations, with her beauty. I bought tons of gorgeously plated art books on the women Surrealists and read the work of the male Surrealists, because at that time, I couldn’t get my hands on the women’s work. Then I discovered Mina Loy, who shone like a newly discovered planet in the solar system. She was my lighthouse through my twenties. She also had a tragic love life.

 

This obsession of mine with women artists who all seemed to have tragic love lives started with Emily Dickinson, whose love life can be seen as tragic, but that is not the way I see it. She made a decision to remain unmarried at a time in which that was virtually unheard of and created her life around her passion. This is not tragic. So first there was Dickinson, then Loy, bringing me to a center of my soul I had never known before. They made their own language. Then there was Carrington, whose characters and surreal settings in her paintings were like the images in my imagination and dreams. They were my soul mates and guides at a time when I did not know either of those existed.

 

In my second stint at college, I read Lorine Niedecker. Her poems and life story hit me the hardest. I cried my way through the entire semester, reading her poems, so bare and lonely and real. There was a truth in them that I had never confronted, that love and loneliness go together, that we are all alone in our deepest struggles, and that nature feels this with us, feels this for us. And that words are incantations, calling forth the hidden spheres with their music and plea.

 

Natural Light

 

These women taught me how to be myself. They taught me that feeling pain is okay. That there is beauty in the world and in the darkest times. This saved me and continues to save me. Being able to write and draw (I drew many pictures of trees and birds, sitting alone and quiet in the woods) and have hope was life-affirming and strengthened me in ways I didn’t even know at the time.

 

I think about how all of these women had tragic love lives. The four women I admire most in the world of art and language. Does that mean anything? In my time now, I don’t think so. But I used to. Those definitions of being a woman artist. What does that mean for your personal life? I used to think it meant a lot of things, including the necessity to endure pain and live a life of extended monologue superimposed on passionate dialogue, neither of which were clear or understandable. I used to think it meant being alone. At the same time, I thought it meant having an intense love affair that included bonding on a bone-soul level so that our bodies and hearts and minds were subsumed ecstatically in each other. This electric bonding happens, chemical, whatever else bonds one to another in passion.

 

Now things have evened out—I trust myself to be in a committed relationship with a man without losing myself. This has been hard-won. Crazy hard-won, as the forces exerted on women and men to lose themselves are volcanic and atmospheric. And human. What it has taught me above all is that I can survive and endure, feel deep pain and face the world, myself and others, with truth and courage. And that I can make beauty out of all of it.

 

The darkest time in my life led me to discovering the deepest beauty and courage and hope. There is hope in our actions, in our creations, in our compassion and love.

 

I have no answers to the paradoxes. I have learned to balance opposing forces for small amounts of time, struggling with them, accepting them, fighting against the darkness, entering the darkness. I have trained myself to keep coming back to that part of myself that tells me the truth. What am I feeling right now? Is this true? This is core awareness, the center of my daily life. Within this is love and washing dishes and feeling lonely and feeling cranky and being mad and ecstatic and in love and the outside world and the inside world and writing and lights.

 

All of it matters. The strange beauty and terror of life right now, right where we are.

 

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This is part 3 of a series.

 

3

 

 

As I walked, panic-stricken, out of the dentist’s Park Slope office that cold, grey Wednesday, the temporary filling in fractured molar # 14 drilled out and packed with cotton, I thought: This goddamn dentist doesn’t know what she’s doing.  She’s a quack.  After all, she hadn’t told me in the first place how much Ibuprofen I could take.  And why hadn’t she written me a ‘script for antibiotics and Percoset and started the procedure that Friday?  I believed that this woman — this young, serious Russian woman — whom I’d been seeing for almost five years, was a quack, good with the fillings and cleanings but sub-par on the more complex issues.  But that all-too-familiar cold, growing fear rose up again, and my thoughts started spiraling: my health was in terrible danger, and that by instructing me to keep my drilled-out infected tooth packed with cotton she was leaving me vulnerable to a worse infection.  I imagined that when I’d have my mouth open to change the cotton some rogue germ or virus floating around my not-so-immaculate bathroom would somehow alight in the tooth pulp and flutter its way into my system, eventually causing all sorts of dreaded symptoms.  Yes, she’d given me stronger, more broad-spectrum antibiotics, but they would no doubt disastrously compromise my immune system, compounding side effects upon symptoms.  And what toxic ingredients (tested on animals, no doubt) were in the mouthwash she’d also prescribed, and how would they further tax my body? I had absolutely no doubt that I’d be sitting for hours in some crowded, gun-shot-wound emergency room, the harried, uncaring nurses ignoring me as infection spread and I finally had a heart attack.  Or, if not that scenario, then having to run from doctor to doctor for weeks and weeks as one after another tried to “cure” me of the side effects of all the medications I’d tried and then jettisoned.  I’d be so emotionally screwed-up I’d never write again.  Forget writing — I’d never be able to live again.  I’d end up like my clinically depressed brother-in-law, so crippled by anxiety I’d never be able to leave the house.  And then, eventually, I’d be homeless, like my sister.

Overwhelmed by worry, doubts and that cold, pure fear I rushed into another dentist’s office on the way home to get a second opinion.  He seemed non-plussed, like what she’d said was absolutely correct.  Walking out, I wasn’t reassured.  I scanned all possibilities: What if I hadn’t described the problem correctly?  What if I’d been too nonchalant, and in trying to cover my panic glossed over some important detail?  I kept scanning, trying to reconstruct the scene in my mind as I walked toward my apartment, but my thoughts were spiraling too fast.

For the rest of the day and into the evening I paced back and forth through the apartment, alternately crying then trying to meditate and talk myself down.  I obsessively checked my face and the root canal site every couple of minutes in different mirrors, in different lights and from different angles, for signs of worsening infection, for any changes to the swelling, for even miniscule anomalies.  At one point I thought the infection had spread to the other side of my face, and so I called the dentist in a panic just as she was leaving for the day.

“Sharon, please go to the emergency room,” was her response.  “Or take some Benadryl.  It might just be an allergic reaction to the antibiotic.”

I was absolutely certain then that she’d put me in danger.  I was so immobilized by fear that I just sat down in the rocking chair and rocked back and forth, shaking and crying.  When David came home from work I was pacing the apartment, crying, hyperventilating, and calling every friend who’d ever had a dental procedure.  I even called my childhood best friend Georgie Kowalski, a registered nurse, to ask her if the information I’d gotten from my insurance’s 24-hour helpline (which I’d called twice, to compare the advice) made sense to her.  She couldn’t fathom why I was so upset, and at one point she even laughed at me when I told her the pain I’d felt over the weekend made me feel like I was experiencing the suffering of all beings.  She thought I was being funny.  When David saw me examining my face in different mirrors for the millionth time he decided to call in sick the next day because he didn’t want me to be home by myself.  And when it was time to change the cotton before bed and rinse with the mouthwash I felt it imperative to disinfect every bathroom surface that my hands, the mouthwash bottle, and the plastic bag I kept the cotton in would touch; it took about an hour.  Before I went near my teeth I washed my hands, wrists, and arms thoroughly with very hot water, as if I were scrubbing up for surgery. Even after all that I set a paper towel down under the bag, and made sure the hand with which I opened the bag was not the hand with which I touched the cotton, in case any germ that had managed to escape the disinfecting surface spray might’ve attached itself to the bag.  It took four tries to get the tiny piece of cotton inside the tooth because my hand was shaking so much, and after every failure I had to scrub up again.  I went to bed exhausted, and fell asleep right, but then woke up from a vivid nightmare a few hours later: I was about to travel back in time, to the past, to heal my tooth.  But I wouldn’t be able to come back to my present life, and the decision couldn’t be reversed.  I shot up so violently in bed that I woke David up.

“What?  What’s going on?” he asked.

“I don’t want to have to travel back to the past to heal my tooth!” I screamed.

“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said, reaching out to hold me.

I shook him off.  “No!  I have to leave in four hours!  What time is it?  How can I get out of this?  I won’t be able to come back!”

“You’re having a nightmare!” he repeated, and I realized he was right.  I got up and took a Xanax, fell back asleep and had another nightmare: I was back in my old neighborhood, visiting the house of my former bully Lori Kruliszewski.  It was after midnight, and I had to walk back home along Racine Avenue, now a dark river of tall, thick prairie grass under a brilliant Big Dipper.  I turned around to go back to the house I’d just left, but a pair of hands grabbed me from behind, under my arms, and lifted me off the ground.  I knew the person who’d grabbed me was Pluto himself, abductor of Persephone, and I was going to end up in the Underworld.  I bolted upright in bed again, and this time stayed awake, pacing and checking my face, until the scalding morning light came blazing through the kitchen window.  I couldn’t bear the light, and so locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the floor.  Next to the toilet was a book I’d been reading (years ago, it seemed) called Pluto: the Evolutionary Journey of the Soul.  Just then I remembered something: my astrologer friend Brant had told me I was going to have something called a “Pluto transit.”  What was that? I tried to remember, but couldn’t quite recall its meaning.  And he’d said something about a Jupiter-trine-something-or-other on March 23.  What was all that?  I knew I’d researched it when he told me, but it was just a foggy memory that I couldn’t wrap my mind around.

By the following week the infection had cleared up (along with my tongue, which had turned black from the mouthwash — an additional source of panic and constant checking, and occasion for more calls to my insurance’s helpline), and the root canal proceeded normally, twice a week for a month.  But the anxiety continued, and worsened, until I could only leave the house for the dental appointments.  Walking to the dentist along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, I was wishing that our landlord would decide to sell the building — an idea that had been floating around since he’d given up his private accounting business the previous winter.  The look of Fifth Avenue between Degraw Street and 9th Street, where the dentist’s office was, kept reminding me of my whirling-mind trek between those two points on March 23.  Plus, I could no longer function normally in the apartment: instead of waking up in the morning as I normally did — slowly, reluctantly, begrudgingly — a rush of adrenaline would pop me up like a puppet.  The sight of approaching daylight through the kitchen window heightened that feeling of cold dread, whereas it had once brought ideas for poems and stories: mornings had always been my writing time.  If I didn’t want to be reminded of March 23, I really didn’t want to be reminded that I’d lived a “normal” life (as normal as life can be for a poet) before that.  I had loved the look of the afternoon light through the bay windows in the living room, through the sheer green curtains, but now I kept the dark blue shades pulled down, and avoided as much as I could the bright kitchen.  I had loved that kitchen window so much, with its view of unobstructed sky, low Brooklyn rooftops and the Williamsburgh Bank clock tower, referenced by Patti Smith in her song “Gloria” — I always got a kick out of living so close to “the big tower clock.”  Now, though, I couldn’t even bring that song to mind.  I couldn’t bear music, and I couldn’t even look at a newspaper or magazine.   And forget books.  It hurt just to have them in the same room.  I remained curled up in bed, ate packaged soups and slices of bread, watched old TV shows on a rerun channel all day long and kept the magnifying mirror close by, to check for unexpected changes to the root canal site: if the swelling had returned, if my skin was turning yellow (I’d read on the patient insert that jaundice was one of the side effects of the stronger antibiotic); if the blackness on my tongue had come back.  I called Georgie almost every day and ran “what if” scenarios past her as they occurred.  I called my friend with the psycho-pharmacologist + therapist + internist for advice (which made the panic worse; I soon stopped doing that).  I began picturing myself watching Lawrence Welk reruns with my brother- and mother-in-law.  My mother-in-law asked nothing of Tom, never even suggested he make an attempt to get out of his own head, and in my fantasy she also asked nothing of me, and I’d spend the rest of my days in a void of comforting changelessness, my limited travels conveniently, comfortingly demarcated by goat paths.  Nothing unexpected or threatening could possibly happen, ever again.

 

Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.

 

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I was told for many years, by many people, that I wouldn’t survive. There was no doubt I wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t safe where I was, ever. When identity is based on this kind of fear, how do we move through this to a place of power? I have spent my life trying to answer this question, as well as many other questions associated with the discovery that there are horrific events in our world. What do we do with that knowledge? How do we continue to live, to survive? How do we deal with the guilt of being survivors in a world where so many of us don’t make it? These questions create a gravitational center from which radiate the many aspects of truth that make up the circumference of meaning. The meaning is not found in answering the unanswerable, but in asking the questions over and over again.

 

The nature of fear is to consume. It’s like a flame. A flame can be destructive or life-giving.

 

I have come to learn that my fear has saved me as many times as it’s brought me to my knees.

 

I have brought this fear, a fear I know intimately, like the palm of my hand, with its many deep lines—the palm readers say I will have a long, interesting life—with me everywhere I go. It is with me when I sleep. It protects me and knows me like a lover. Of course it does, because it sleeps next to me every night. This fear sits next to me when I eat, follows me into the restaurant when I am meeting friends, orders coffee at the end of the meal. For a long time, my fear stood outside my writing—I could not even bear to bring them together in a conscious way. But, little by little, my fear started to inform my writing, make it face itself, make me face my own darkness in words, made me have a conversation with it through my writing.

 

This allowed for a third ghost to enter the picture—a witness. I became my own witness to my thoughts, sensations, beliefs, and stories about Fear.

We don’t just want to write something good. We want it mean something. One of the scariest things is to think none of what we do matters. Writing is about connecting—to ourselves, others, the place where body and mind meet, our own stillness and silence that is part of the world’s stillness and silence, from which strength and courage and truth and love come in unlimited supply. To touch that, even for a moment, with our writing, with words, actions, intentions, is meaningful. Every second we experience our lives is meaningful. We deepen our own awareness into acknowledgment of that meaning—it is a task, every day, to do that.

 

Meaning is the antithesis of fear.

 

*

I’m worrying a lot right now about being honest in what I write. So much is coming up for me and it all feels so raw. I want to write about it but it feels too scary. I can barely talk about it.

 

I can barely talk to people who’ve known me my whole life, who know me and know this fear, know my fear.

 

And I realized that that’s exactly the place to start, so I start at the not being able to talk about it, what that feels like, that place between feeling and expression.

 

That is part of the fear—and the freedom.

 

I want so much to be free. To feel free and safe. I want this for everyone in the world.

 

It shouldn’t be so hard to feel safe and that has created a grief that has been inside me for as long as I can remember.

 

We want to be known. And we want others to be known. We are fierce, fearless creatures who inhabit a haunted, beautiful, scary world.

 

When we know our own personal fear, it’s a weird intimacy, because we know it, we sit there with it, watch TV or read, or do the countless tasks we do throughout our day and night, we sleep, wake up at 3 in the morning, and there it is, the fear, sitting on our chests like an animal from another realm. So we know it, it’s like a friend coming to visit, but it’s a friend who talks to us about all of the things that haunt us and upset us and scare the crap out of us. And we sit and have coffee with our friend, who’s listing all of the catastrophes and tragedies of all time, because fear is timeless, isn’t bound by time, so it knows everything about every horrible thing that’s ever happened in the history of all humanity and all life and all death and all of the extinctions and all of the genocides and wars, and we’re sitting there on the couch, drinking our coffee and wondering whether or not to offer coffee to this friend, who says they’ve traveled for miles to see us, but we know they live next door or in our bathroom or in our bed. And they know every inch of us, everything that makes us exhausted with fear, just totally tired, but talking with them and hanging out with them makes us feel better in a way, because it’s a conversation between a witness and a child, or a witness and a scared adult, or a witness and fear itself. And this is the way we face fear.

 

*

 

This winter, the weather is haunted. We watch as snow piles up on our windowsills and presses against the screens. We watch the weather reports, 10 degrees, 20 feels like summer.

 

*

 

Just as I’m getting used to appearing and reappearing, I disappear again into fear. Fear takes hold of the mind and the body responds, the chest tightening, lump in the throat, thoughts darting around like hunted things, blind and terrified. Fear is not easy. It’s not rational and, while it can be attacked somewhat rationally, there is an element of it that is like the center of a flame, unreachable and primal. The need for safety is universal, as is the instinct for survival. When these are threatened, fear digs in and constricts a wider view—whether the danger is real or imagined. What is the way out of this?

 

When we are in the midst of it, feeling the constricted pattern of the fear, thinking, writing, muttering, talking through the fear we’re feeling, then sitting silent as stones, we somehow, through all this, move past the paralyzing stage of the mind playing out scenarios that seem as real as the room we’re in.

 

My Buddhist teacher says to ask, is this scenario in my mind real?

 

When we are afraid, the lines become murky and foggy between what we’re afraid will happen or is happening and what is really happening. It’s easy to convince oneself of the worst. We don’t know how to polish things up and end writing or end a trail of thought or conversation with some kind of flourish or optimism or something to turn to or lean on—courage is the ability to come back to and be present in the room. We are in the room or park or supermarket, we know and are aware that our bodies are here right now and we can be witnesses to the mind tightening in the grip of terror. Trying to be as present as possible and name things: I am feeling terrified and scared and unsafe. My chest hurts. My heart is beating fast and then it’s barely beating. My breath is shallow.

 

And that is all there is, until the next moment.

 

*

The way time moves. On certain days, it dictates. On others, it runs smoothly parallel to the mind, to the beating heart. And we don’t wait for things, we feel time as a gentle presence and boundary that moves things along like breath and baking, heating up leftovers, resting. This is resting, when time moves like this, when we are aware of it like this.

 

Resting in the discomfort, in the fear, we open up space. We see and feel ourselves standing in a field with weeds and visual access to the horizon. We can breathe.

 

*

 

The winter hopes. It is long. I am tempted to pull out the string in the back of it to make it speak or tell fortunes. Where is it that we leave our playthings when childhood is taken from us like specks of dust in the light as the light thins and then disappears altogether? We’re haunted, all of us, by this dimming light. Sometimes the haunting has words, unintelligible and in different languages, their sound lilting or suspicious or frank. The dotted lines marking the map to oblivion. The chest pounds. We are all afraid of what might happen, and we drown ourselves in the aftermath of probability—how many scenarios of the Apocalypse, of the impending destruction of our perfumed lives can we view, as if on a screen, before we listen to our hearts beating, right now, inside of us, and acknowledge life is this? Life is the beating heart, the fast or slow breath, the tired muscles in our legs as we walk at the end of the day, the energy we have for those we love, we keep going, going, in spite of fear, of harsh predictions.

 

This evening I allowed myself to feel empty and spacious, having no plans for the rest of the week save one dinner. This isn’t rare for me. I try to keep an open schedule so I have space and time for myself and writing. For myself to just be, in unscheduled time, and for my mind to be at rest, or to be reading, or thinking in a spacious way as to allow new thoughts to come in. And tonight, I was reading a bit and watching Endeavour, and taking breaks to just walk around my house and drink water and pet the cats, and I felt empty and peaceful. And then a tinge of restlessness. Rustled the water a little. The clear lake becomes the tiniest bit murky as the silt is stirred up, the undersurface of the water. And I decided to call my great uncle and check on him in this cold and made a time to see him this week. I understood even more clearly than I had that giving myself this space and not just filling hours with work or TV or social engagements lets what is truly important rise to the surface so I can then take right action. It is a deliberate result.

 

*

 

There is a deeper peace, and a deeper silence. From out of this acceptance as things are arise right ideas.

 

*

 

Reading The Hunger Games as Katniss drops honeysuckle nectar on her tongue, this visceral memory comes back to me of my pre-adolescent body and what it felt like— energy coursing through me, through my muscles— everything bright and new, glistening, reflecting sunlight, bright, bright sunlight, and being excited about everything—  my best friend Sherri’s apartment, and her mom, who was a single mom, and the peacock-back wicker chairs… I remember the apartment complex we lived in and the honeysuckle that grew by the train tracks and the smell of the honeysuckle and eating it and hanging out with a group of boys and girls whose names I don’t remember and flattening pennies on the tracks. This feeling of being in my body, part of nature, and city, being outside in the air.

 

*

 

Maybe what I think of as claustrophobia in a place of fear is actually closer to freedom than I think. I think it is a cramped room. I think it is a place from which I can’t escape. But the very experience of fear makes me human. The struggle with all of this makes me human. The fact of the struggle, this medium or median translating dust and fog into constellations— that is purpose and meaning. And does this give rise to hope? Does it create fertile conditions for hope and presence to grow? Maybe it does. Maybe the sensations and thoughts and visceral experience of being afraid and staying there for one second, with the tight chest and barely beating heart and stopped breath, create freedom.

 

In the end, we don’t know. We are tired from not sleeping enough or waking up too early, in the dark, unable to get back to sleep. So we wander in the darkness of our houses, before the sun has come up, to boil water in old kettles. And now I am thinking— I really should replace my old beige kettle. I want a bright red kettle, not bright in shade, but a rich, deep red. We make coffee. This is the promise of a new day. We begin the movement forward, in time, of this day. Time moves and seems to splinter, burns together, when we focus on what we’re doing, and maybe we get satisfaction from that. And these moments are blessed and whole. We embody them.

 

I have stayed in my house for two days because it is so damn cold. I really need to get over it. I need to go out. Then, the next day, I go out. It takes half an hour to get ready, put on all my layers. I have lunch at my favorite diner. They are playing Men at Work, and people are talking, and there are coats, scarves, hats piled everywhere. I see a friend from the food co-op as I’m leaving. I go buy some coffee and salad greens. I come home and take off my wet boots, my sweater, my second shirt.

 

Over the weekend, I go out and walk along the park and take pictures. I take off my gloves to hold the camera and my fingers freeze. My thighs are numb. The park, the trees, the monuments around the entrance to the park at Grand Army Plaza are ghostly. I take pictures of the ghosts. The trees are thin-limbed, their dark branches bones against the silver-gold of the sky. The sun is magical, bright behind the veil of winter. When I come home and look at the pictures I’ve taken, they are of another world. They are beautiful, and make visible the line between worlds.

 

This is freedom. I am completely entranced in the magic of winter.

 

 

 

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This is part 2 of a series. 

2

The infected root canal was a ridiculously minor trigger, but as a tipping point it definitely had its precedents.

On May 25th, 2010 (the same day I had a flarf poem published in the Wall Street Journal —  yes, a flarf poem in the Wall Street Journal!) I received news that my Fulbright Specialist candidacy was about to move to the next, much-desired, level: a school had requested me.  I would be teaching in a small town in Russia called Orsk, on the border of Kazakhstan, thirty miles west of Siberia.  On my original grant application I was asked to pick two global areas where I’d prefer to teach, and I chose Eastern Europe and Asia.  Teaching in Orsk would be a dream gig because of its location on the Ural River, across which stretched a famous bridge with signage indicating “Europe” on the western side and “Asia” on the eastern.  I was ecstatic, and started making preparations, even though I wouldn’t be traveling for a year: I researched Orsk, Siberia, got a Rosetta Stone Russian course, began formulating my lecture series and started drinking vodka to raise my admittedly wimpy (for a writer with an Eastern-European ancestry) tolerance for the “little water.”

By September, though, the details of the gig began to get convoluted and the preparations frustrating.  First, the date of my teaching stint, agreed upon by the school and myself, had to be moved up (the wording on the grant summary regarding the start date wasn’t very clear), and so instead of traveling to Orsk in April, I’d be going in mid-February — yes: almost-Siberia in February.  Next, my travel agent refused to sell me a plane ticket because she didn’t think flying over the Ural Mountains in the dead of winter on a regional airline she’d never heard of before was safe.

“And they just had that big Aeroflot disaster,” she whispered, “right over the Urals . . .”

Her voice put the fear in me for the first time.  It felt like a cold fluid moving quickly up my spine and spreading out inside my brain – the first presentiment of the anxiety that would soon take over my life.  I seriously decided (for about ten seconds) that I would tell my American program officer, Alice, that I couldn’t reschedule for February because my school wouldn’t allow it.  But who turns down a Fulbright?  Riddled with anxiety but determined, I explained the situation to the school, and found a Russian travel agent by half-jokingly asking the students in my fiction workshop (on the day that a tornado touched down in Brooklyn, by the way), “Anybody know a good Russian travel agent?”  Not only did someone have a ready answer, but the agent she knew turned out to be a practicing Buddhist.  I had taken refuge as a Buddhist the year before, after my sister’s death, and so I figured this was a sign — not only would everything work out, it would work out Buddhistically!   But it took the agent, Izabell, a week and a half just to get a purchase confirmation for the plane tickets — she’d actually tried to buy them when she was in Moscow — and I spent my 50th birthday anxious and worried that the whole thing might fall through, but trying not to dwell on it because I was on a three-day silent retreat at a Zen monastery with my husband.  Things got even more complicated when I got back: my Russian program officer, Natalya, mentioned in an email that the school I was to teach at, a local branch of a state university, hadn’t gone through the proper channels or done the proper paperwork to procure a Fulbright Specialist, and that was why, a month before my scheduled departure, the “Letter of Invitation,” which I needed in order to apply for a business visa, still hadn’t arrived.   Visa processing, I learned, could take up to eighteen business days, and the Russian Embassy would be closed for the first two weeks of January, for Orthodox Christmas.  Natalya told me not to wait, but to just go ahead and apply for a tourist visa instead.  “At least it’ll get you into the country,” she wrote in an email.  I took her advice, but when the school found out I had a tourist and not a business visa they said I couldn’t legally teach  — or even stay — on the campus.  When I put the emails between Natalya and my contact at the school in Orsk through Google Translate (Natalya hadn’t bothered to delete them) I discovered the only place I’d be allowed to stay legally was “the infirmary” of the campus sports complex. I’d already spent a considerable sum on warm clothes appropriate for a Russian winter (not reimbursable by Fulbright) and the Rosetta Stone course (also not covered).  And then there were the five months spent researching and writing my ten lectures on “What American Literature Shares With the World”  — and how was that time to be adequately reimbursed?  When the letter of invite finally did arrive — a week before my departure — David suggested that I say nothing about it; if they didn’t know I had it, I wouldn’t have to go.  But, again: who turns down a Fulbright?

“I’ve known you for twenty years,” he said, “and I’ve never seen you this anxious. I thought this was supposed to be a positive experience.  Are you just doing this to have something to put on your CV?”

At this point, yes, I thought, as there certainly was no joy left in the project.  On the other hand, I didn’t want my five months of preparation to be for naught, so I applied for the expedited $350 business visa (also not covered by Fulbright, per policy), which wouldn’t be ready until the day before my departure.  Izabell, sensing how stressed-to-the-breaking-point I was, suggested that I go with her to her weekly meditation session and dharma talk with a well-known expatriate Tibetan monk, Pema Dorje, on the Lower East Side.  I agreed, and we met for dinner before the session at an Indian restaurant on First Avenue.

I’d never met Izabell, only talked to her on the phone.  She had a soft, measured, thoughtful voice.  And so it was a delightful surprise when a gorgeous, dark-haired woman my age (her birthday, in fact, fell on the same day as my sister’s death), entered the restaurant in a swirl of beige and ivory wool scarves and delicious perfume, and embraced me like a long-lost friend.

“I was thinking,” she said as we sat down, “when I was driving here — and I drive from New Jersey, so I have lots of time to think — that I just do not understand why you’re having so much trouble with this.  When I travel to Russia with my husband — he’s American — they treat him like the Dalai Lama or something.  They fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other to make an impression on him.  And this is a government agency?  There’s something wrong here.  Can you back out?  Or will you lose all your money?”

“At this point,” I said, “I don’t even care about the money.  It’s the time.  I have literally spent every day — almost all day — for five months writing these lectures.  I can’t just give up, with all that behind me.  I could’ve been writing other things.  But there I was, you know?”

She sat back in her chair, and looked at me intently through narrowed eyes.

“Okay, listen: after the dharma talk, and when the meditation is concluded, I’m going to introduce you to Pema and we’re going to ask his advice.  He is very wise.  He’ll tell you what to do.”

The dharma talk took place on the third floor of an unprepossessing walk-up on First Avenue and Second Street, next to a McDonald’s.  Who knew that secreted away in that dull grey building with the fire escape on the front was a shrine room decorated with icons and thangka paintings, a tall, golden altar at its center? As I got comfortable on a cushion on the floor next to Izabell, seven or eight people came in, greeted each other with bows, settled onto their meditation cushions and waited until tiny Pema Dorje entered and began the session.  After the meditation we chanted prayers, and then Pema gave a light-hearted talk about the significance of the night’s new moon.  When the session concluded, Izabell took me by the hand and introduced me to him — he was no taller than my shoulder — and explained my situation.

“Ah, you know,” he laughed, mischievously, “we always fear our obstacles, don’t we?  We want to fight them — overcome them!  But our obstacles are also there to teach us.  You understand?”

“Yes,” came a deep male voice from somewhere behind me, “obstacles have often saved my life.  Pay attention to your obstacles.”

“That’s right,” a woman said, from another corner in the room.  “Your obstacles are serving you.”

Again, the cold fear up my spine.  But still, and even against the advice of a monk (and everyone else in that room, it seemed), I remained determined.

At the eleventh hour, the school in Orsk generously agreed to pay for my expedited visa, and as our plane skimmed a patch of very Russian-fairy-tale-looking snow-tipped fir trees near Sheremetyevo Airport, I was relieved and ecstatic to actually be in the country with David by my side (traveling at his own expense, to make sure I actually got there).  We checked into our hotel in Moscow — a Marriott! — and took a nap.  Afterward, refreshed and happy and looking forward to seeing some of Moscow before dinner (despite the 10 degree temperature), I got into the shower and promptly slipped and hit my head on the back of the porcelain bathtub.  I didn’t see stars, didn’t lose consciousness, but the pain was incredible.  When David called Natalya, my program officer, to get a reference for a doctor, she told him rather diffidently there were a couple of clinics I could go to, but didn’t provide phone numbers, or any Embassy or Consulate medical contacts.  I wasn’t surprised, actually; this was the same woman who’d instructed me to get the wrong visa.

“She’s no help,” David said, disgusted.  “I’m going down and asking at the desk.”

The hotel concierge, more helpful, called the paramedics, and they came to my room — a thin, dour, Harry Dean Stanton-looking man, and a husky, efficient woman — and checked me out: it didn’t look like I had a concussion, but I’d have to watch for symptoms (nausea, headache, vomiting) during the next twenty-four hours.  Naturally, Natasha Richardson came to mind.  The woman touched the bump on the back of my head and declared, gently, “маленький” (“small”). As I signed my name in Russian on the medical report I asked (via the hotel translator) if they thought I’d be okay to fly to Orsk the next morning.  The woman laughed and said (via the translator), “If you can sign your name in Russian you’ll probably be okay!  But just keep watch over yourself, especially if you have symptoms.”

The flight to Orsk the next morning was at 6 a.m., and at 6 a.m. I was, of course, in the cab en route to Domodedovo Airport with David.  The concierge packed our complimentary breakfasts up in plastic “lunch boxes,” so we’d have something to snack on while we waited at the gate.

“So where are you traveling to so early in the morning?” she asked, cheerfully.

“A place you’ve probably never heard of, even though you’re from here.  It’s called Orsk, and it’s right above Kazakhstan.”

“You’re right,” she laughed, “I don’t know it.  But I do know that it’s very, very far.  Very far, indeed.  So be careful, you know, because of your head.”

Her words so did not offer comfort, and the familiar chill arose.  And halfway to the airport I began feeling nauseous and headachey.  And panicky.  There was no way to tell if it was because of what the concierge had said, the overheated cab, the lack of a proper breakfast, an attack of nerves about flying over the Urals in the dead of winter on a regional airline that my travel agent mistrusted, Pema Dorje’s advice, or because I really did have a concussion. I looked at David and said, “I really feel sick.  I don’t know what to do. What the hell am I going to do?”

“Alright, I’m putting a stop to this nonsense right now,” he said, and the decision to turn back was made, on that dark, empty, snowy Moscow highway.  Natalya had never suggested helping me reschedule my flight so I could rest up for a day, so I knew that turning back would be forfeiting a Fulbright — the thing I most did not want to do, the one thing I had pushed and pushed against for all those months.  After we arrived back at the hotel and rebooked our room I called Natalya to tell her what happened.  She was sympathetic but not helpful, though she did suggest I try to get a free dinner from the hotel since I had fallen in their bathtub.  When I told her I didn’t feel right doing that she said, “Yes, they are probably accustomed to American tricks.”  We flew back to the States the next day and the day after that I saw my doctor.  Everything seemed okay by then.

Disappointed but resigned that the Fulbright was obviously never meant to be, but happy to have five months of pressure and worry behind me, I got back to what I’d been working on before I’d had to spend every spare moment on grant preparations: a very emotional  “prose poem story” about my sister Renee’s death in November 2009. On Wednesday, February 16 I read it at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan.  The response from the audience was unexpected and overwhelming, and some people came up to me with tears in their eyes.

“I envy your ability to expiate,” one friend — a journalist-commentator for National Public Radio — said.  It had been immensely difficult to write, and twice as difficult to read in public, as I was revealing the secret that lie at the core of my family’s own “breakdown”: that my father might’ve molested my sister.  Back in 1984 I walked in, after work, on a “family meeting” that she’d called, to make her announcement.  (Why did she do it while I was out of the house? I always wondered.)  Renee and our parents had been sitting around the kitchen table, and as I walked in the door my mother had said, “Your sister says Dad molested her when she was little.”  The discussion ended with her saying that it actually never happened.  Later, I told my parents I didn’t believe it, and I told Renee that I did.  Because I had seen something, when she was eight and I was ten, that had remained with me: as I was coming into the living room from the hallway I saw Renee and my dad on the couch, and he was whispering into her ear.  She had an odd, unidentifiable look on her face, a combination of boredom and annoyance.  Our dad was always sneaking up behind us and saying “Boo!” or whispering goofy things in our ears like, “Hey, how did that wheelbarrow get up there?”  There was no way of knowing what was happening, so I stopped and tip-toed backward to the bedroom and sat on the bed, scared.  As an adult I couldn’t help but wonder if molestation was the reason, along with abandonment by her birth mother (Renee had come to us as a foster child in 1968, and we adopted her two years later), for her nightmarish life of addiction and homelessness.  She’d died in a nursing home, and I didn’t find out until three days later, by which time one of her natural sisters, with whom she’d been reunited years before, had had her cremated.

The evening after the reading, while eating granola cereal before bed, I felt a sharp pain in my tooth.  I knew I’d probably broken an old filling.  The next day I went to my dentist, and she said I’d fractured the tooth and would need a root canal, which she wanted to begin right then.  I have no idea why, but I asked her if it could wait until Monday — I needed to take antibiotics before dental work because of a mitral valve prolapse diagnosis.  I don’t know why she didn’t just write me a prescription, have me fill it at the drugstore down the street, pop two pills and get back in the chair — maybe she had appointments the rest of the day.  Whatever, she said she’d see me on Monday and to take ibuprofen if the pain got to be too much.  And it did indeed get to be too much because she never told me how much ibuprofen I could take.  As I drove to our house in Pennsylvania on Route 80 a day later the pain was overwhelming; it was that singular, nightmarish, deeply acute dental pain that feels like the suffering of all beings focused tightly on one tooth.  When we got to the house David called the dentist’s office and spoke to her partner, who gave me better directions regarding dosage.  Finally, with a combination of 3 Advils and deep breathing, it abated.  The procedure commenced when we got back to the city that Monday.

By Wednesday I noticed that the lower left side of my face was swollen, but figured it was because of the root canal. I called the dentist to ask her what the best way to bring the swelling down might be because I was starting to look like the Lady in the Radiator from “Eraserhead” (at least on the left side).

“The swelling is on the bottom?” she said, sounding surprised.  “Well, it’s probably infected.  Can you come in now?  I have no appointments the rest of the day.”

And that was what set the two-year breakdown off, at about 2:30 in the afternoon on March 23, 2011.

Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.

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This music crept by me upon the waters,

Allaying both their fury and my passion

With its sweet air: thence I have follow’d it,

Or it hath drawn me rather. But ’tis gone.

No, it begins again.

                                            — Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

 

 

This is Part 1 of a series.

 

1

 

 

 

“It’s not really called a ‘nervous breakdown’ anymore,” my downstairs neighbor, Jack, laughed — a little condescendingly — when I told him I was having one.  I’d just gotten home from my final day of struggling through teaching a three-week summer fiction workshop, and we were sitting in our Brooklyn back yard on one of the cooler evenings that June.  Twenty-five years earlier, when I first moved into the apartment, the back yard had been nothing more than a cracked cement patio with a dirt trim, a couple of ghetto palms and a vista of old lady panties on clotheslines as far as the eye could see.  Over time, Jack’s partner Chris had transformed the concrete-locked square into a shabby-chic sanctuary where we’d enjoyed, along with my husband David, lovely summer nights (and a few lovely dawns) drinking, grilling and talking under twinkling Christmas lights twining up the honey locust trees.  The old lady panties disappeared as the old ladies passed away and affluent young couples moved into Park Slope.  Sadly, I hadn’t taken much advantage of the backyard that summer — my last summer in that apartment, as it would turn out — because the “nervous breakdown” (or whatever the proper clinical term was) that had seized control of my psyche on March 23, 2011 made it impossible to be outside in bright light.  To be in any kind of light.  To be anywhere, everywhere.  It had made me a prisoner of my mind’s most primitive fears and anxieties.

I quickly reassured Jack that, oh yes, this most definitely was a nervous breakdown: every familiar thing about myself and my life had been broken down, broken apart, utterly deconstructed over the course of three months by the constant, unrelenting anxiety of what felt like a 24-7 panic attack.  It felt like my flesh had been flayed, my façade stripped, every nerve exposed and vibrating.  The way an angle of light crossed a building made my heart palpitate; the music I once loved to listen to made my hands shake; every morning an adrenaline rush would  pop me up in bed and, as the day wore on, make me want to commit suicide so it would stop.  I couldn’t even remember the way my mind had once worked.  The onset of all this?  It was ridiculously, unbelievably minor: my dentist telling me over the phone that my root canal-in-progress had gotten infected.  Once the words were out of her mouth, a mountainous wall of panic arose and blocked all other thoughts, feelings, experiences.

“Makes no sense, does it?” I asked Jack, shaking my head and looking up at the sky, which was just beginning to (thankfully) take on the longed-for indigo that would finally obscure the setting sun’s searing orange.  It was the moment I lived for, every day, when I could finally relax a little, knowing that the bright horror of daylight would soon be swept away by merciful, concealing Night.

“No, it makes perfect sense,” he said, which didn’t make me feel any better.  He himself had had a psychotic break a few years before, which was why I was confiding in him.  “No one really knows why the psyche finally decides ‘Okay,enough.’  There’s a series of stresses, and you get through those, but then there’s the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.  That’s what happened to me, and I’ve seen it in the literature, too.  That’s pretty much how the DSM describes it, actually: ‘acute reactions to stress that do not resolve after removal of the stressor’.”

“Yeah, but the stressor’s been removed — the root canal’s way finished — and I’m still feeling the same panic and horror and fear that I did three months ago.”

“I told you before: this isn’t about the root canal.  It’s about something else. I think it’s your sister’s death.  You know, two years is nothing.  You’re probably still processing it.  The DSM says that ‘mental breakdowns’ — which is really the correct term — have some aspects of ‘mixed anxiety-depressive disorder.’  Which is what I had.  There’s also some relation to PTSD.   But those are chronic; what I’m seeing with you looks like it will probably be short-term, because it’s so intense and sudden and so out of proportion with the trigger.  And I wouldn’t try to figure out what caused it.  You’ve been through a lot, starting with your sister, and then your accident in Moscow.  And then forfeiting a Fulbright?  Come on.  Just try to get through it, then maybe figure out what caused it when you’re in a better mind-space.”

But therein lies the problem: how to get through it? At some point early on I’d made a decision to eschew anti-depressants, despite Jack’s advising getting on SSRIs, as they’d saved his life.  My gynecologist had also suggested anti-depressants, in addition to hormone replacement therapy.  “Basically, when the estrogen goes away,” she’d said, “the adrenalin comes out to play.”  Actually, before she said that, she pretty much yelled at me: “You need to be on anti-depressants!”  But I was resolved not to go that route.  I didn’t want my mind-body chemistry altered even further by the medication merry-go-round I’d observed in several of my friends.  My conversations with one particular friend would often commence with her saying, “So I talked to my psycho-pharmacologist yesterday after I saw my therapist, and I told her that my therapist and also my internist had suggested that I should maybe up the dosage of … ” After that, an exhausting-to-listen-to description of drug combinations that had failed, and so were jettisoned for new combinations (which, at some point, would probably also fail and be jettisoned as well).  About two years back this same friend had triumphantly debuted her effusive poem, “Celexa” at a reading; a year later she was on the Web researching how the drug, now ineffective, could be combined with another, and visiting (and reporting back to me about) the psycho-pharmacologist’s recommendations.  Also figuring into this was the example of my clinically-depressed, born-again Christian brother-in-law: the most Tom could manage in a day was navigating the goat paths from his room, his childhood bedroom, to his mother’s room to watch Lawrence Welk reruns with her every evening.  He couldn’t leave his room before 5 p.m., and needed to build up to it by watching television in bed all day.  The last time I’d seen him, Christmas Eve 2004, after not seeing him for maybe two years, he looked like he hadn’t changed his jeans in all that time: the seat was coal-shiny from constant wear (even to bed, I imagined), and the sour milk smell emanating from him made me nauseous.  During his twenty-five years on medications he’d been gradually increasing their strengths, and now his high dosages of Seroquel + Geodon + Cymbalta, plus six Klonopin to get to sleep (and a couple extra to keep him calm whenever he had to manage new situations), had caused dyskinesia: involuntary movements of the limbs.  Opening the door when David and I arrived that Christmas Eve, he stood stock-still in front of us, unblinking, his right hand configured like he was holding a gun, his legs oscillating back and forth like a little kid pretending to be cold.

“Hi, Sharon, Hi, David,” he said without inflection. My feeling, in better days, was that his real problem was a combination of shame at being gay, compounded by a stifled imagination and curiosity: once, when I’d suggested he take a look at Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul, he’d thanked me but demurred — he said it was against his religion to read something by a Catholic.  There was also, I thought, as he stood in the doorway, a performative, acting-out aspect to his situation, a commandeering of family attention by creating a persona of total incapacitation, perhaps as a kind of vindictiveness: “You all can take care of me now because you made me this way.”  He once told me he’d never really had proper role models as a child (“deprived of guidance” was how he’d described it), and believed that that was the source of his depression: his inability to effectively navigate his own life.  He was still hurt by a first grade classmate who’d ratted him out for being in the wrong line — the girls’ line — for the bathroom after lunch.

“Sometimes I wish I could find that woman and make her apologize,” he’d said.  “I wonder if she ever thought about how she affected my life.”

I’d wondered if he were hanging on to that ancient hurt to fuel the feeling of victimhood that in turn fueled his ability to create the persona of a special person needing special considerations, someone who was denied guidance and was now, as a result, too sick to be expected to function normally.  I’d been severely bullied and emotionally wounded by my grammar school classmates myself, but once I discovered rock and roll I adopted role models like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, former misfits and outsiders who’d created powerful, charismatic personae based on being special in a different way: brilliant and fabulous precisely because of their quirkiness. They’d used their marginalization (actual or imagined) to become observers.  And so because I was odd and had no friends I spent time normally devoted to socialization on reading, writing, listening to music, researching what I wanted to be in the adult world: proud of being extraordinarily different, and thus extraordinary.  By the time I got to college I was dressing punk and taking lots of shit for it in Back of the Yards, my working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, named for its proximity to the infamous Union Stockyards.  It hurt, but I just kept imagining myself at my 30-year grammar school reunion (did grammar schools even have reunions?) giving a speech wherein I called out Lori Kulikowski, my main bully, reminding her that she’d once called me “Palsy,” “Nigger Lips,” “Titless.”  Then I’d whip out my shiny Pulitzer (in my mind it looked like an Emmy) and say, “Make up a name for this, loser!”  Of course, I was using my woundedness like Tom was, only in a different way: to fuel my ambition.  But as the anxiety tightened its grip on my psyche, I understood more clearly why Tom had withdrawn from the world.  I was doing the same thing.  I was even fantasizing about watching Lawrence Welk with him and my mother-in-law in her bedroom at the same time every day.

In all honesty, I was wondering who that “I” was.  This new “I” was not the same person who drove from Chicago to New York in 1988 with $500, a box full of books and a granny-square quilt to study with Allen Ginsberg in Brooklyn College’s MFA program, who once trekked for two weeks in the foothills of the Himalayas in ill-fitting, second-hand Keds purchased from a street vendor in Kathmandu.  And it certainly was not the same person who once kicked an undercover Chicago law enforcement officer in the groin.  It most definitely was not the person who had written the poems “Annoying Diabetic Bitch,” “I Never Knew An Orgy Could Be So Much Work,” and “A Unicorn Boner for Humanity.”  That person had been buried by whatever force had taken control on the afternoon of March 23, 2011, when my dentist told me over the phone, with a matter-of-fact sigh, that my root canal had gotten infected. The feeling of continuity between one day and the next had been destroyed, and concentration on anything but the anxiety and pure fear was impossible.

But what I couldn’t have guessed at the onset of the anxiety, and in the horrible bald-bright months that followed, was that time would bring unexpected, perfectly-fitted gifts, and deeply-held wishes fulfilled.  Looking back now, I think some part of me understood that, and fit itself to that hidden truth all along, eschewing medication in favor of having faith in … something … and being a witness to what was happening.  I’m not even sure I know now what pulled me forward.  I call it “being mindful,” but it was connected to something so deeply held within myself I lacked conscious access to it.  But I foresaw none of that that evening in June with Jack in the backyard.  It’s hard to see the path when you’re on it.  The big surprise?  That renewed contact with my grammar school bullies over the destruction of something we all held precious could provide the healing and the continuity with the past that I so desperately longed for.  The even bigger surprise?  That myths of descent could be as true and vital today as they were thousands of years ago as long as I stayed mindful of the markers along the journey’s unmapped twisted path.  The not-so-big surprise was that poetry was there, too, as it had been all along, even though I’d pretty much buried the things that drew me to it in the first place, in order to make a living.  Those things took center stage.

Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.


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